Struggling Renters Need More Federal Aid
By Alieza Durana and Carl Gershenson
The eviction tsunami that housing advocates have long warned about is about to crash ashore. Yet the recently released American Families Plan fails to properly address the impending disaster. The policy initiative did not expand support for Housing Choice Vouchers, a successful program that currently subsidizes rent for more than two million low-income households. The Biden-Harris administration’s promise to “build back better” includes much-lauded policies to increase the housing supply, such as removing restrictions on multifamily housing, but building an equitable housing infrastructure requires more than brick-and-mortar solutions. These projects will take years to construct. Struggling renters today do not have time to wait.
Even before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s dubious decision to end the CDC moratorium (which the Department of Justice is appealing), landlords had filed 332,123 pandemic eviction filings since last March, according to Eviction Lab data.
Stable housing is the bedrock of flourishing communities, and its absence is a leading cause of poverty for U.S. families. The trauma of being forcibly removed from one’s home leads to a host of household and community challenges, including but not limited to: mental and physical health deterioration, job loss, suicide, adverse childhood experiences, increased neighborhood violence, and moves to substandard and unhealthy housing.
The U.S. already has a proven solution to keep families housed in the short term: Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers. Prior to 2020, the U.S. only delivered housing assistance to 1 in 4 qualifying families, while it witnessed 3.7 million eviction cases filed in 2016. In 17 of the 35 states the Eviction Lab studied, landlords filed against Black women at twice the rate of white tenants with similar incomes. The current plan—200,000 new vouchers in the 2022 budget—is a far cry from meeting the needs of the 11 million renting households who currently pay more than half of their income toward rent and utilities.
During the campaign, candidate Biden’s housing policy included a groundbreaking provision for universal Housing Choice Vouchers. But as president, he did not include this in any of his major economic plans or his budget request. The Biden-Harris administration should make good on its campaign promise: a universal voucher program for all renters.
By guaranteeing access to vouchers for eligible renters currently excluded from the program, the Biden administration can demonstrate that the U.S. government is finally committed to providing good, affordable housing for all of its residents. The goal should be to make housing assistance like vouchers so commonplace that they are spoken of in the same terms as Social Security and Medicare: not as stigmatized relief, but as a guarantee of a standard of life and security that every U.S. resident deserves.
Protecting vulnerable renters from housing insecurity, eviction, and homelessness will promote community stability and the economic recovery. By pairing housing reforms with an investment in lower-income renters, political leaders can demonstrate a commitment to an equitable “development without displacement” that shields renters from rising rents. An expanded voucher program could allow landlords to offer housing to low-income renters without risk to their bottom line, freeing them to focus on their primary task: maintaining their property at a satisfactory level. Research shows many landlords in low-income communities value the steady income stream represented by vouchers.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that phasing in a voucher entitlement over a ten-year period would help eight million additional households at a cost of $460 billion—not a small number, but still one that we know the federal government could afford. For example, the government could shift spending priorities from well-off homeowners to struggling renters. The federal government currently grants $125 billion in homeowner subsidies each year, with $80 billion of those subsidies going to households earning over $100,000 a year. The administration should also work to make funding for vouchers mandatory so that future governments can automatically increase investment in renters should the economy falter.
Yet vouchers aren’t a panacea. The administration will need to address obstacles that often stymie the rollout of policies such as rental assistance, which has failed to reach enough renters. First, landlords in higher-income areas too often discriminate against voucher holders, while renters themselves struggle to navigate the burdensome application system to find a home before the voucher expires. Pairing voucher expansion with strong enforcement of antidiscrimination laws around source of income while reforming the application process will help ensure the plan works. Landlords and tenants would both benefit from a more streamlined application system that allowed landlords to receive their first check faster.
Climate change will also threaten our already inadequate housing stock. Floods and other natural disasters disproportionately occur in neighborhoods of color, whose residents were pushed to occupy undesirable land by redlining and other discriminatory practices. The administration must ensure that it invests in building green public housing now for residents who are likely to be displaced in the future. While many U.S. renters will benefit from new market-rate construction, well-built public housing can provide greater stability and quality of life for most low-income tenants.
As the Biden-Harris administration continues to help America recover from the pandemic, bolstering vouchers could ensure that we do not return to the housing crisis status quo, but instead guarantee every family a place to call home.
Alieza Durana is a journalist for the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Carl Gershenson is project director for the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Co-published with The American Prospect.